Anerio’s motet, Christus
Factus est, is one of those
magical pieces which crop up in most
choirs’ repertories. But this disc by
Westminster Cathedral Choir, reissued
by Hyperion on their Helios label, makes
us realise that there were not one but
two Anerios, brothers who composed a
fine array of music beyond the well
known motet. And the motet itself, included
on this disc, does not occur in any
printed sources before the 19th
century; which, of course, raises the
interesting possibility that Anerio’s
Christus Factus est might not
even be by Anerio at all.
Felice Anerio wrote
the motet, but the centrepiece of this
disc is the fine requiem mass by his
younger brother Giovanni Francesco Anerio.
Giovanni Francesco was a singer and
maestro di capella in a variety
of Roman churches. His requiem mass
was published in 1614. He was ordained
in 1616; being a musician, his first
mass (at the Gesu) was not surprisingly
a very grand musical occasion. In 1624
he left Rome to serve King Sigismund
III of Poland; Anerio died in 1630 on
the way back from Rome. Sigismund had
employed Luca Marenzio in the 1590s
and the trip had ruined Marenzio’s health.
The brothers Anerio
were born into a musical Roman family;
their father was a trombone player.
They belonged to the generation of composers
who lived under the shadow of Palestrina.
But their lifetime saw a large expansion
of musical activity in Rome and though
writing within Palestrina’s tradition,
many of the younger composers produced
music of great interest. Giovanni Francesco
Anerio produced a number of masses besides
his requiem. Interestingly his career
stresses the Palestrina connection as
he produced a four-voiced version of
Palestrina’s six-part Missa Papae
Marcelli - a mass which was also
arranged for eight-voices for the Sistine
Chapel choir by Francesco Soriano.
Anerio’s requiem belongs
to a period when polyphonic settings
of the requiem mass were becoming more
common. Unlike Palestrina, who set only
the Introit, Kyrie, Offertorium, Sanctus
and Agnus Dei, Anerio set a substantial
part of the mass; most notably he includes
a setting of the Dies Irae. In
this movement, Anerio alternates the
plainchant with polyphonic movements.
This use of plainchant is reflected
in the Introit, where each section is
introduced by plainchant.
Whilst Anerio seems
to have been at some pains to match
the music to the words in the more dramatic
sections of the Dies Irae, he
seems also to have been concerned over
the audibility of the words. Many of
the choral sections of the Dies Irae
mix homophony with discreet polyphony,
thus ensuring maximum impact for the
The performance is
exemplary. The intense and plangent
tones of the Westminster trebles are
particularly suited to the long lines
of this music. The whole reading is
notably expressive and makes you understand
that the choir not only performs this
repertoire in concert and on CD, but
also sings it in the liturgy on a daily
basis. It is this commitment to the
repertoire that is one of Westminster’s
great strengths. Anyone wanting a version
of Anerio’s requiem or those wishing
to explore Roman music post-Palestrina
cannot go far wrong with this release.
Of course, the power
and intensity of the performance comes
at some cost. Repeated listening makes
you realise that the trebles, understandably,
do not have quite the total control
that female sopranos might have. And
there are occasional hints of smudginess
in the lower three parts. But I think
that these are small prices to pay for
such a fine, committed, passionate performance;
one that is very distant from the cool
perfection of some English adult choirs
in this repertoire.
The choir also perform
six of Felice Anerio’s motets. Felice
was Giovanni Francesco’s elder brother.
He was a choirboy at St. Peter’s under
Palestrina and continued there when
his voice broke. He spent time as maestro
di capella at various Roman churches
until, in 1594, he was appointed to
St. Peter’s in succession to Palestrina.
He was ordained a priest in 1607. His
large-scale works are very much in the
Palestrina mould, but in his smaller
pieces with basso-continuo he explored
more modern techniques. That his output
is largely unedited and generally unavailable
means that a full assessment of Anerio’s
position as a composer must wait.
Most of the motets
included on the disc are for double
choir, a form very popular in Rome at
the time. The Magnificat Quinti Toni
was written for the Sistine Chapel with
the verses being divided between the
two choirs; Anerio uses both choirs
to emphasise important passages using
antiphonal interchanges or eight-part
polyphony. It is a substantial work,
lasting over seven minutes, and though
Anerio quotes the 5th Tone
on which the Magnificat is based the
work is through-composed.
For his setting of
words from the Song of Songs,
Vidi speciosam, Anerio brings
something of his skill as a madrigalist.
His expressive writing comes close to
that of Vittoria and the motet has in
the past been mis-attributed to the
Spanish composer. Ad te levavi,
which sets words from Psalm 122 (123),
is also notable for the care with which
Anerio sets the words. As with the Magnificat,
these two works are most effectively
written for double choir.
is Anerio in more traditional mode,
alternating plainchant and polyphony
in this setting of the traditional Christmas
hymn. Christus Factus est remains
simply beautiful, whoever wrote it.
The choir’s control is notable in the
wonderful suspensions that make the
piece so distinctive.
Anerio’s Salve Regina
setting again uses a double choir, but
this time a high choir and a low choir
rather than balanced pair of ensembles
which was more common in Roman music.
The results are masterly.
Not all the solo voices
used on the disc are perfect, but the
choir’s performance more than makes
up for this. The engineers have succeeded
well in capturing the acoustic of Westminster
Cathedral. Each piece has a lovely acoustic
aura about it, without every obscuring
the text or the music. The recording
is an object lesson in how to present
polyphony in a resonant acoustic.
This is a fascinating
disc of music in fine performances.
Hyperion are to be congratulated on
re-issuing it. Music by the Anerio brothers
is still pretty rare on disc. In performances
as committed and as passionate as their
works make pretty riveting listening.